Government Shutdown Looms as Congress Returns from Break

Congress returns next week from its Easter break and will face an April 29 deadline to extend federal discretionary budget authority and avert a federal government shutdown, which could occur coincidentally on the 100th day of the Trump presidency. Photo Credit: AP

Congress returns next week from its Easter break and will face an April 29 deadline to extend federal discretionary budget authority and avert a federal government shutdown, which could occur coincidentally on the 100th day of the Trump presidency.

Photo Credit: AP

Discretionary federal budget authority expires at the end of April, and the GOP-controlled Congress will have just a few days to extend it when lawmakers return from their Easter recess to avoid a government shutdown. While daunting, what lies on the horizon is no less overwhelming. Congress and President Trump also need to start work on the FY18 budget and raise the debt ceiling. 

Complicating the situation, the White House says it wants the House to vote next week on a brokered version of Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation. Released today, the compromise would allow states to waive portions of the essential health benefits included in Obamacare if the waiver reduced premiums and expanded health insurance participation.

The federal budget consumes volumes, but this diagram sums up the major spending pieces.

The federal budget consumes volumes, but this diagram sums up the major spending pieces.

It’s possible a week-long continuing resolution could buy more time, but bipartisan compromise will be required at some point to push through what will likely be an omnibus spending bill for the rest of FY17. Earning Democratic support in the Senate is paramount to success, but easier said than done.
 
Trump threatening to take executive action to withhold subsidies for Obamacare individual market enrollees “to bring Democrats to the table” exasperated the minority party members as they began to dig their feet in the sand for a fiscal fight. The White House’s recent request to slash $18 billion in spending for the remainder of FY17, while increasing spending on defense and a border wall, further alienated Democrats, and a few Republicans, too. Some Republican appropriators view President Trump’s FY17 requests as too late, given that FY17 efforts began last year and the fiscal year is almost half over.
 
So far, Trump budget-writers have only released top-line descriptions of the President’s proposed budget for FY18. The 53-page “skinny” budget proposal leaves out a lot of detail that congressional appropriators need to consider before approving agency budgets. Administration officials say more details won’t come until next month. Meanwhile, agency heads haven’t been allowed to testify on Capitol Hill in any greater detail than the skimpy summary descriptions.
 
Many of Trump's proposals that exact deep cuts or zero out some programs have been dismissed as unrealistic by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Republicans are already feeling heat back home over the failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare and Trump’s continued refusal to release his income tax returns. Special elections in Kansas and Georgia show potentially surging Democratic support in the face of waning voter confidence in Trump,
 
Further complicating FY18 talks will be raising the $19.9 trillion debt ceiling that was reached in mid-March. The Department of Treasury is expected to have enough tools at its disposal to maintain borrowing capacity until at least September, but Congress will need to act before then to prevent a default. Several lawmakers in the past, including the current Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, have used looming debt ceiling deadlines as bargaining chips for additional spending cuts. 
 
Both the FY18 budget and the debt ceiling, however, will be put on the backburner next week while Congress finds a way to keep the government’s doors open through September. This will require the support of at least eight Senate Democrats and may need to proceed without the full support of the House GOP caucus. Highly conservative Republicans in the House remain committed to seeing their budget-slashing priorities enacted. In the Senate, 60 votes will be required to advance spending bills. Republicans only hold 52 seats.
 
News about the shelling of a Syrian air base, a mammoth bombing in Afghanistan and a stare-down with North Korea have drowned out whatever discussion is occurring in Washington, DC about the budget resolution and debt ceiling. That should change when Congress gets back to town and faces a short deadline to act on a budget extension.
 
The current budget resolution expires April 29, which is coincidentally the 100th day of the Trump presidency – a milestone that would not be best marked with a federal government shutdown.